The North Carolina health director shut down a polyure-thane foam plant for one week this month following complaints from neighbors, and after a state inspector lost consciousness at the plant. But the shutdown - the state's first under new environmental regulations - has prompted charges of election-year grandstanding and overreaction by government officials.
The plant now is operating again, but the health director is requiring Trinity American Corp., whose foam and fiber operations are based at the plant in High Point, to install 10-foot venting stacks at the plant.
Trinity American has operated in the same location, using many of the same chemicals in foam making, since 1977. Its products include PU foam seat and back material for North Carolina's furniture industry.
The plant is in the Randolph County district represented by the state's speaker of the house,
Republican Rep. Harold Brubaker. Both he and longtime political rival, Democratic Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., face re-election this year.
Brubaker's press secretary Don Follmer said, ``Part of [the closure order] is politicking and grandstanding on the part of the governor. Part of it is a state health di-rector in his last year and somewhat of a bleeding heart - and some of it is reality-based.
``The company has been somewhat under the gun for the last 10 years and the Health Department has sort of shucked and jived about doing anything with them or for them,'' he said in a telephone interview from Raleigh, N.C.
He described part of the problem as ``NIMBYism,'' the not-in-my-backyard syndrome, but said there are legitimate health concerns - though ``I have no way of knowing if people are getting sick.''
The plant reopened April 18 under an order from North Carolina Health Director Ron Levine that requires state monitoring of tolulene diisocyanate vapor emissions from the plant. The order also specified installation of the stacks to allow better dispersion of emissions.
The April 16 order also requires Trinity American to pour foam only one hour of the day, to alert state health officials prior to pouring foam and to install air monitoring equipment.
Neighbors David Deaton and Barbara Fultcher live in houses less than 100 yards from the plant. The two, who are siblings, have led the charge to close the plant because they claim its emissions have been making them sick.
So vigorous has the battle become between neighbors and the company that it attracted the attention of CBS News' ``48 Hours'' program.
``Our goal is not to shut Trinity down, it is to get them to comply with ambient air regulations,'' said Debbie Crane, public affairs director for the North Carolina Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources.
Crane, speaking on behalf of the governor, said: ``Although we are business-friendly, we can't allow a particular company to make a neighborhood sick.''
She added: ``We have letters [of complaint] going back 12 years. We're working to get a consent order to do something to get those emissions reduced.''
If that is the case, asked company spokesman Rick Amme, ``Why are they pre-emptively shutting down the plant when they could be reaching a negotiated settlement?''
The company's president claimed in an interview that the firm has used TDI for 20 years without question until the health director's order.
President Jerry Drye said the weeks before April 4 were ``the first time I'd ever heard of problems with TDI; you can't blow foam without it. I've been [making foam] since 1959,'' Drye said. Amme said the company previously had overcome objections with North Carolina over its use of methyl chloride in foam making, and now is operating under a state consent order regarding that chemical.
Deaton would not elaborate on the ``different effects'' he said he has suffered as a result of living next to the plant since it opened.
Deaton said he has lived in his house 38 years. When asked if he might move from the house, he responded, ``Would you buy my property? We're sitting on a Love Canal here.''
Fultcher declined to respond to questions, adding she recently had returned from a trip to Duke University Hospital with her daughter ``for treatment of her brain tumor.''
Fultcher would not comment on whether she believes the brain tumor is related to emissions from the plant and would not elaborate further on her daughter's condition.
Drye said the problems with neighbors started back in 1982, when two of Deaton's Doberman pinscher dogs died.
``They were the terror of the neighborhood,'' Drye said.
The company was accused of killing them as the dogs allegedly drank from ground water on Trinity American's property.
``But an autopsy showed the dogs died of natural causes,'' Drye said.
Later, Drye said, ``We had a fuel line to break going to a boiler and spilled 100 gallons of heating oil, like diesel fuel. The state fined us $6,000 and we cleaned the creek up. [Deaton] got the media out here on that.''
Crane said none of the other eight PU foam plants in North Carolina has this problem. The others, Crane said, are in industrial parks.
``This is the first time a health director has issued a nuisance order and an air toxics call. This one is pretty substantial to have this order.
``Our epidemiologist went to the site and found numerous instances of people reporting the same illnesses from those chemicals,'' Crane said.
TDI is one of 135 chemicals controlled since 1991 under North Carolina's air toxin regulations.
None of those chemicals is listed under the 635-chemical federal Toxic Release Inventory, and no particular threshold of harm to humans is used to determine what chemical is listed as an air toxin, she said.
The North Carolina air toxins rules are similar to federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations, which still are being written.
But Crane noted the defining incident that prompted the health director's decision came in October when state health worker Kevin Ours, while on an inspection tour, lost consciousness when walking through a cloud of vapor outside the plant.
Crane could not identify the suspect fumes.
``We have pictures in our file that showed a cloud enveloping his crew. He may have been ultrasensitized to TDI,'' she said.
But Amme said: ``When he was overcome, only the fiber plant was in operation, and the foam business was not operating at the time. This was very pivotal over the decision for the state to act.''
Follmer, who ran the state environment press department under former Republican Gov. Jim Martin, said Brubaker ``has nothing to do with this; he has re-ceived no constituent complaints. None of the [neighbors] have contacted him. ... Brubaker has said the decision [to close the plant] is up to the health department, which falls under the governor.
``If [Brubaker] had had any constituent outcry over the last 10 years he would have jumped all over it. He doesn't favor this company over anyone else.''
Trinity American, Follmer said, has contributed to the campaigns of both Hunt and Brubaker.